The End of Christianity in America?

If you want to keep an enterprise of any sort alive, you have to keep selling it. You must never assume that people understand why you exist, what you believe, or where you’re going. Every day is a new opportunity to present your vision – and you must do it in a way that makes sense to your audience.

D.A. Carson has said it something like this:  One generation believes in something. The next generation assumes it. The third generation forgets it, and the fourth generation denies it. I think he’s on to something. Culture varies from place to place. Some are ahead of, or behind the curve. Overall though, I think America is roughly in the same place with Christianity.

  1. The generation of my grandparents would be the first generation in this case. Think people born in the early 1900s. These people knew what they believed. They knew their bible. They knew their hymns. The country as a whole was churched. You didn’t have stores open on Sunday and everyone knew the Lord’s Prayer. These people believed. They were the solid foundation of our country, our families and the church.
  2. Call the next generation those born roughly in the 40s and 50s. They knew their bibles pretty well too, because everywhere they went, they heard it. They went to a friend’s house, and expected a prayer before the meal. Not all of the country was churched, but all were familiar with and accepting of church. Most places were still closed on Sundays because even if the shop owners didn’t care, they knew that much of their clientele did. Much of society knew the Lord’s Prayer and the more popular hymns because they went to church for a lot of events. It was like knowing the national anthem from going to ball games. Christians of this generation were no less Christian than the previous generation, though they probably represented a smaller segment of the population than their parents did. Many in this generation started new churches. The denominational model was too dry for them. They didn’t feel their parents’ churches were equipped to reach the younger set, and they were right. So they started their churches with like-minded Christians who grew up in the faith, and life was good. They did their kind of music and wore their kinds of clothes, and the non-denominational movement was born. The trouble is, danger was brewing. These people assumed that because they knew their bible and their songs, everyone else did as well. They were wrong.
  3. They next generation was born in the 70s and 80s. Some of these people knew their bibles, but far less than before. They knew the popular verses that made it on t-shirts and coffee mugs, but didn’t know how they all fit together. These people also grew up with a massive explosion of malls. Many stores were now open on every day of the week because the unchurched people were many, and the churched people didn’t really have a problem with it. Hymns were now ancient history, unless a contemporary Christian artist did a cover of one. Few in this generation knew the Lord’s prayer or the national anthem. They could probably pledge allegiance to the flag, because that was still actively taught in schools. Those who were Christians (far from a majority by now) knew all the songs in their churches. Groups like Integrity, Vineyard and Hillsong made it easy to have common songs among our diverse churches. We believed in God and had many of the same sermons the earlier generations had, but there was something missing. People growing up in this generation were like sand castles. We could look many different ways – some quite ornate and some ordinary – but little waves were wearing away our foundation. And if a big one came along, many were wiped out overnight. Because the previous generation assumed everyone was a Christian and everyone knew the basics, they didn’t pass them on in the same way they received them. Books, sermons and classes on the foundational doctrines of our faith were replaced by Christian self-help books. Instead of learning how to be holy, we learned instead how to be happy and healthy. This was the generation we got nailed with an explosion of national “Christian” teachers pushing their version of Christianity that may have been well-intentioned but was also quite self-serving. We had a lot of options. We could shop at a hundred stores at any hour of the day. We could hop between any of the 10 new churches that started each month. We could pick what type of books and teachings satisfied our needs. But we could just as easily walk away. A bad relationship, a health problem, financial difficulties, addictions and any number of other struggles were enough to knock us off course. Very easily we would be swept into the sea. We joke about going to “Bedside Baptist”, or say that we find God while we’re out fishing, or that we’ve decided to do “home church”. And unlike previous generations, these answers were not questioned because we have all learned to be tolerant. You see, this is the generation that forgot. They have these faint memories of growing up in church, but the memories are more emotions than they are beliefs. Many people don’t know what to do with this, so they do… nothing.
  4. The fourth generation is in their teens today. They have grown up with two or more homes, and even more parents. They have probably been to a half-dozen churches, but would call none of them “their church”. They are incredibly fragmented because their parents’ lives were so fragmented. Mom and dad got divorced, the economy caused them to pick up and move a number of times, and they have never really gotten connected to anyone anywhere. They are islands unto themselves. They have seen abuse and addiction first hand and it’s no big deal. That’s just life, as they see it. They have never heard a hymn in their life. They cannot name any Christian doctrines. They don’t feel any of this is important because no one has taught them that it is. Much of this generation has never seen the inside of a church. Even weddings and funerals are often done in other settings. They might go to an Easter or Christmas service, though they’re not sure why. It probably has something to do with making grandma and grandpa happy. Most of these people could not identify a bible verse amongst a line-up of platitudes from fortune cookies. Their iPods and internet history are incredibly diverse. Each of them is a subculture unto themselves. Most are not Christian, even in a vague sense. Of those who do identify themselves as Christian, the vast majority will walk away from their faith within their first weeks away from home. Not because someone convinced them that God was not real, but because they were never convinced of him in the first place. Since the message they have received has been so watered down, they deny it entirely.

The first generation believes, the second assumes, the third forgets, and the fourth denies. I think as a country we’re somewhere in between the forgetting and denying stages of Christianity. I suppose the good news is that is when reformation can happen. A new drive that makes a compelling enough case for Christianity could create the next version of strong believers. But we could just as easily sit where we are for a few more decades. It all depends on whether those of us who still care are willing to do anything about it. Are we willing to change our church models? Are we willing to figure out what it takes to reach today’s culture? Or are we going to assume that everyone is like us?

QUESTION: If you accept Carson’s framework, where do you think the Christian culture of America is right now?

  • I agree wholeheartedly. There’s a huge number of 3rd and 4th. I’m a second working on becoming a first (after almost 40 years of working on it).

    Most churches I see are nearly apostate. Almost all major denominations have fallen into clear heresy on at least one or two obvious scriptural injunctions.

    I see my mission as being to the apostate church to help the Lord save those who get no real teaching. It’s a real problem.

  • Thanks David. It sure seems that way, doesn’t it?

  • My generation is definitely (generally) in the third category.

    We need to keep in mind though that in each generation, even the later ones, there is a remnant of people who ARE living as unto the Lord. It’s not all doom and gloom. 🙂

  • Absolutely Adam. Definitely good to keep that in mind. My point in bringing this up is this as a wake-up call.

    If that remnant doesn’t engage, *eventually* it will be all over. Churches, ministries, and individuals need to see where we’re at. What worked in previous generations doesn’t work now. The third and fourth generations cannot be reached in the same way as the first and second generations. I think we have a lot of first and second generation churches that are dying as they wonder why young people aren’t coming in their doors. We need to reach the 3rd and 4th where they’re at. If we don’t – the churches die, the people die, and the movement dies.

  • In fact, America may be fifth generation by now or worse.

  • I think it’s a cycle. I think we stay in that denial and continue to spiral, or we have some sort of reformation. I would pray that enough people are sick enough of life without meaning that they would look for answers and find Christ. Then, having come from complete darkness to light, they would be the next generation of true believers that would reset the system!

  • I wonder if the Lord’s return will give us enough time. Or is this the great falling away talked about in Thessalonians?

  • Personally I think we’re well into the denial stage, and it’s moving fast. You just answered a question for me, at least partially, that I asked on my blog today. (Might not be clear how it’s connected, but it is, somehow.)

  • You could well be right Bernard. These are crazy times.
    Thanks for stopping by!

  • Interesting viewpoint. A little generalized, but well said nonetheless.

    Christianity (like parenting) has been the product of one monumental swing to the next. One generation so dislikes the way the previous generation operated that they look to reinvent the wheel.
    And therein, for me, lies the problem. No institution can constantly re-invent itself and expect to survive. That is not to say that we cannot adjust to the needs of the current age, but as you know, an adjustment is not the same as rebuilding.

    So I think we are on the other side of the swing, if you will, as we deny the practices and concepts of our parents (and they, ours). We should simply stick with what’s working and adjust what isn’t. Most of this begins with a listening ear to the concerns and challenges of the current day. The Bible has shown us that “there is nothing new under the sun.” This very Corinthian age of people has been confronted, challenged, and compelled toward Christ before. We could do the same now.

  • Ha! Generalized it is, and still incredibly long. It’s a good thing I didn’t try to be any more specific. 🙂

    I think it’s all about the generalization, actually. If you get too specific it falls apart. What is true here is only true here. We need to be willing to look at the issues and ask these questions in our own areas. That’s where we’ll get to the specifics.

    I hear what you’re saying about reinventing. I think it’s ok to do if you keep a core set of beliefs in the closed hand, and make adjustments to meet the culture. I think our problem is twofold. One group (fundamentalists) is unwilling to change anything, and another group (emergents) is willing to change everything. And the massive knee-jerk swings you describe happen when we’ve held on for too long, and have to make giant course corrections.

    As for your last paragraph… well said. 🙂

  • I fit into the third generation there. I do hope you’re right though, at least as far as the Christian religion goes, it would be nice to see it end. On the other hand, it would also be nice to see religionless Christianity replace it.

  • Hey Drew. Thanks for reading. What do you mean by that? Your comments sound like you have a specific thing in mind, but I’m not sure what that is.

  • You’re right, I do. 🙂 Since I’ve already shamelessly advertised my blog here once today, I may as well again. 😉 This post I wrote a few months ago should explain what I mean: http://www.christianheretic.com/2010/03/christian-religion-is-failure.html

    (Edit: Wow, I wrote that a year ago? Man, time flies.)

  • It’s all definitely cyclical; America as a whole would certainly fit into the 3rd moving into the 4th generation of the cycle described by Carson. Canada is firmly in the fourth.

    Fortunately, though, God always maintains a remnant. Here in Canada, while we’re further down the line of forgetfulness and denial, we’re also seeing an explosion of good, Christ-centered, biblically grounded churches. My church, for example, is the accidental megachurch. We run out of a high school, run lean of program, and our pastor preaches for up to an hour every week.

  • No problem. Just post a link to mine on your blog. 😉

    I understand exactly where you’re coming from, but I would heartily disagree as to the solution. I understand your distinction between Christian religion and Christianity, but I think it’s misplaced. Your beef should be with the individuals whose faith brings no change in their life. It should be with pastors and authors who have completely neutered the gospel and made hypocrisy ok. Jesus himself founded the church. He told us not to forsake meeting together. He told us to eat together, and celebrate communion together. In short – to do life together. Much of that is in the context of the church. Not a building by itself, but buildings sure are handy when it’s cold, wet and dark outside! The NT was written by church planters. How can you think that churches are somehow unchristian?

    If you’re calling for a very fundamental change, I’m right there with you! If you’re arguing that much of the American church is dead and in need of reformation, I will agree wholeheartedly. But if you’re saying that the baby goes out with the bathwater, you’ve lost me.

  • I suspect you and I might actually agree 100% on this (well, at least 98% anyway) but be using different terminology for what we’re trying to get across. I have no problem with the church that Christ created, and am all for Christian fellowship. I do, however, have a lot of problems with “Institutional Christianity” (which I like to call “the Christian religion”).

  • Super! I’m on your team then. Given that, I’d recommend coming up with some different terminology. “Church as usual”, “Americanized Christianity”, or one I use a lot “Christian Consumerism”. You’ll probably gain a lot more traction if people can understand you clearly. Look what it did for Anne Rice.

    When you come up with some good ideas as to how to change things, keep me in the loop!

  • Right on Aaron. That’s cool that you guys have found a way to reach people where they’re at. You are bucking a trend.

    I recently went to see Alan Hirsch. He named country after country where he said Christianity flourished then failed. (Certainly there is a remnant everywhere – I’m not being fatalistic.) What he was getting at is that Christianity does not have any serious influence on culture anywhere in the world except in the US – and here it is tenuous at best. That’s what we’re up against – and it’s something too few are taking seriously.

    Keep up the good work!

  • Don

    Scott – great post.

    My parents were born in the early ’20’s, I was born in the early ’40’s. I have children born in the ’70’s and grandchildren post 2000. So I my experience spans belief, assumption, forgetting and denial. Thank God the generational changes you describe don not entirely apply to my family – but to be honest, there is a resonating touch of truth to what you say.

    I’m a Canadian Australian. Sad to say, but Australia is just where Canada is – well entrenched in the denial phase.

    Churches that a generation ago I would have considered evangelical I now consider apostate.

    One very encouraging experience, though, give me a great deal of hope.

    I’m involved in planting a new church. Our mandate is to counter-act the tendency of many churches to be as shallow as a puddle by providing solid foundational Biblical teaching. To our amazement – without any of the fancy pops & whistles, God is drawing young adults (late teens – early 40’s) to hear the Word preached.

  • Hey Don – good to hear from you!

    1st part – very sad.

    2nd part – Awesome! Way to go! Maybe you’re seeing people who are tired of denial and are ready to believe. That’s a great sign!

    In the words of Robert the Bruse, “I want to believe!!!!”

  • Tim Burt

    Interesting narrative on the postmodern era. In regards to your final question, my perception is found in Matt. 24 ,these are the last days and what we’re seeing is the great falling away Jesus predicted. It seems it is possible for the elect to be deceived.

  • Hey Tim!

    You could be right. It also could be the same cycle that has continued for 2000 years. Either way, the church needs to get engaged in the fight.

    Thanks for reading my (very long) post! See you tomorrow.

  • Latorey

    I agree with Carson, the Christian culture in America is in between forgot and deny.

  • Actually, that was my observation, but I’m glad to hear we agree! Well – maybe not glad, but you know what I mean. 🙂